A personality that is as vibrant as her pieces, Kiki Kamanu is never just a walk in the park, she is a tornado that will hit you in just the right places.
Diving into a world of "I DON'T GIVE A FUCK", Kamanu talks about what inspires her collections, breaks down her creative process, which shockingly doesn't involve a moodboard and how she has achieved such immaculate results this far!!!
"I’m sorry. It’s for those who get it, who aren’t afraid not to look like everybody else."
Just the sound of Kiki Kamanu takes you on a journey that has only sun sass and #IDGAF attitude.
While being the daring designer that she is clearly meant to be, Kamanu has also touched the modelling waters. Kamanu was a model represented by the Ford modelling agency in Boston, walking for power brands, such as Chanel and Gucci.
What is the saying; you can have beauty and brains?
As much as a first in Neurosurgery sounds and looks bliss on that resume, this was not the path for Kamanu, clearly.
Having travelled to various parts of the world, due to the designer having diplomatic parents, she has been able to experience the multitudes of cultures that this world has to offer and these have inspired some of her collections.
There is never a dull moment with Kiki, on arrival at her production factory located on Ikorodu road, Lagos Nigeria, I was asked where the bottle of champagne was, of course she was joking. maybe?
When asked to describe her ideal brand ambassador, it was not what was expected. She veered away from the stereotypical tall, skinny and blonde models girls, she wanted a woman with blue hair [emphasis on the blue hair] with matching blue lashes, who can pull off those very formal suits that most accountants would wear for their 5 days a week shift.
Kiki Kamanu is not just the brand, it's the person and this interview with her explores the designers' adventures in Ethiopia and how it lead to be a predominant source of inspiration in her Balkan Rhapsody S/S'13 collection.
Q: Who is Kiki Kamanu and what does the brand represent?
A: I have no idea…No, just delete that (laughs at her response).
The brand began as the person, it was for people like me, who looked like me, who are as adventurous as I was, as I am. For people who are proud and confident of their body parts, I want them to show all their body parts, even in winter (sly) and for people who would walk into a room and know that they will be noticed and not because they are half naked but because they took the time to be different, in a good way.
I got a lot of good feedback, from clients and strangers but the one thing I heard a lot from most people was that “Oh I love your pretty shoes, but I can’t wear it” or “OH my God this is so nice but I have nowhere to wear it to” and so I began to think not just of Kiki Kamanu (me) as my ideal client and customer/consumer. So, I began to shift and adapt the way I designed but at the same time, trying not to lose who Kiki is. I still want the pieces to have adventure, colour, energy and to give you confidence, but at the same time I want to appeal to someone who is a size 2 going up to a size 26, which at first I thought was going to be quite daunting but with time I have been able to accomplish that. So not all pieces are meant for all body types and shapes, which is fine, in the same way not all styles or patterns are meant for every type of person.
You could be conservative or adventurous and you find out one piece works for both individuals.
So now, the Kiki Kamanu person is every woman. She is a 22-year-old mother who is in school, who has to think about day-care, who knows that when she comes home from school she doesn’t want to change out of her Kiki clothes to play with her 2-year-old son.
It’s also the lawyer who is a size 20, who has been in court all day, who just wants to spend time with her family and not have to change out of her boring or tight-fitted suit to relax.
Someone who knows when she walks into a venue or a club on a Saturday night, all eyes are going to be on her from head-to-toe the entire night.
I try to think, what is this person trying to be like? What is she like now? And how can I make her aware that she has the various Kiki dresses to select from.
Q: If you could describe your ideal brand ambassador in three to six words, what will they be?
A: What I’m about to say might not be what you’d expect but I’m not sure I want it to be someone who is model thin but more of someone who is tall, regal and someone who carries herself as though she is on a runway regardless of her size.
Someone who you see and your reaction is “Oh my God, where did you get that blouse?!”, someone who doesn’t give a toss what people say, someone who can walk in with blue hair (emphasis on the BLUE HAIR) and doesn’t care. Someone who can have the blue hair and the blue lashes and still pull of a black corporate suit and still be taken seriously because she does have what it takes. My ideal brand ambassador is every woman, I’m sorry. It’s for those who get it, who aren’t afraid not to look like everybody else.
Ummm… For one of my fashion shows, the ARISE Fashion show to be more specific, I had the models come out wearing bill boards/ Plaques and each one would say “I’m not a fashion zombie” and “I don’t keep up with the Jones” and as they walked out, they would rip it off and expose their clothes. I had to get approval from the head of ARISE, his production managers were like, NO, NO!!! and I said ask him and so he came and said; “Kiki, high-five girl!!! I love it, do it.”, So I had to fight to get my message across.
Q: Having been exposed to various culture background’s (i.e. America, France, Nigeria…etc.) would you say various cultural aspects have been interwoven into your designs?
A: Oh, absolutely, absolutely in every way. It’s funny because it has been unconscious. I realise the more I travel and the more I see, the more I change the way I see fashion.
My mother is a diplomat of the foreign services, so, we have lived in different places; from Jakarta to Istanbul, Cairo, Doha, Bulgaria…different places.
I have always been interested in the fashion, of course, and the culture, the people and I find that each time I go somewhere different now, I immediately sketch what I have just seen.
Summer 2013, I had just come back from Ethiopia and I drove around the Omo valley and the drive between the villages was between a 6-10-hour drive. I photographed the different tribes and captured their culture.
A lot of them were very primitive, basically what you see in Tarzan, that is what they were, not wearing clothes. I took a picture with my big camera and one of them just ran because of the flash.
Now I’d expect that at night, but, this was during the day, and they just screamed and ran and they had no beds, so I thought, it is that primitive. I captured about eight different tribes, the Mursi tribe are very aggressive. They had their 7-year-old carrying machetes.
So, as I got there, I had to have an armed escort just for that village.
When I got there, one of the ladies saw the blue beads (blue is the colour for virgins who want to be married) I wore around my waist and she was tugging on the beads and she was a young girl wearing the plate lip jewellery. She was signing that she wanted my beads, and she came back minutes later and she gave me a plate. They don’t part with these plates; they do not play with the plate jewellery but yet she wanted me to take off the beads in exchange for her plate. This shaped my next collection.
Prior to that, I spent some times in a small village, can’t remember the name, and that collection was called Balkan Rhapsody, 2013. I spent time with the gypsies there, like real gypsies. It was all just so surreal. I tried to spend time outside the touristy areas.
So, to answer your question, a part of where I have been, does always shape me in some way or the other.
Q: How would you describe being a creative in Africa, especially Nigeria? Do you feel you are not taken as seriously as you should be due to being classified as African or African-based?
A: It’s funny that you say that because I don’t see myself as a Nigerian designer because I am not, I am Kiki Kamanu. My heritage is Nigerian, it’s American, it’s rich and black as everything, so, I won’t say I am not Nigerian but I would say I am not a Nigerian designer because 60% of my clientele are outside Nigeria.
The production process is not as limiting as it used to be. Many people bring up the infrastructures and the issue with N.E.P.A (The electricity provider for the better part of Nigeria.) but those are here, so we just have to move on.
People are still able to work around those at a slightly different cost. I have toyed with manufacturing in Turkey and in China, and that means I’d have to take my fabrics there and import the finished product and so in the end, it is really not worth it. I find I have to bring in a lot of my fabric, I have been able to establish a relationship or partnership with some suppliers here, who go out to bring it in and that makes things a lot easier because I was travelling all the time, from Dubai, to Paris…etc. and so it gets tedious after a while.
It is limiting because we don’t have many retail outlets. So, you will find many designers who carry-on their own boutiques but you will not find many boutiques who carry a circle of designers.
You have the Alara’s and the Grey Velvets’ and that’s really it in the entire state.
And so, what the Kiki Kamanu label has had to do, is we now have an e-commerce site, it launched about a year and a half ago and that has been our saving grace.
So, we have partnered with DHL and this has made our lives so much easier and this partnership began in October. So, this has given my clients the confidence that they will get their package within 3-4 working days. The site brings in a lot of international clients.
We have also partnered with a French West-African website based in Paris. They cater towards people who enjoy pieces from the African continent and their clientele aren’t all black, which is very interesting.
Right now, we are shipping to clients in Bari, Italy, to France of course, the U.S and somewhere in the Netherlands. So, this has opened up a space in the international market.
We stock in America, Kenya, Barcelona and so on.
"Another thing is, do not be afraid to hear NO."
Q: Can you highlight your creative process?
A: It varies, I mean I could see what you are wearing and what I would begin to process is how to find which material, which print will complement the top. I could see something and say; “oh, I like this but I would do it in different way. Would I make it longer, shorter? Would I use blue instead of green?” or it could be the other way round, where I see the fabric and start from there. I also sketch, I spent the whole weekend sketching, just working on the floor.
For instance, my boyfriend could come up to me and ask if I am sketching and I just sit there, staring into the distance and not responding. I am sketching in my mind. It is rare that I actually have time to just spread out my plan and just do what I need to do.
I carry my Crayola crayons around with me, I just love doing things in colour.
When the sketch phase is over, I use sample fabrics to make a sample, and so once we’ve made the sample, I will tweak it a bit and once I am satisfied with the sample, we may produce it immediately or we may just put it aside for a different time. I always get an opinion from the entire team, at times I am confident, at times I need a second opinion.
The next process is creating another sample in chosen fabric and I put it on, and model it. It is easier for me to be my own model. I put on my sunglasses because I am not wearing any make-up; I don’t have time to keep doing a full face. After which we go outside to shoot and send the images to trusted friends and ask their opinions on what could be improved or if they will wear it.
At times, I will post some samples and observe people’s reactions.
My driver takes my pictures, I taught him. (laughs). So yeah, that is our process, it is organic, nothing amazing. On some occasions, I use a mood board but I stopped doing that because I just don’t use a mood board anymore. For me a mood board always takes up a lot of my time and I change so much during the creation of the mood board that the results are not what was initially planned.
Not using a mood board has gotten me in trouble sometimes because I am all over the place but I am learning to just streamline everything and make my collections more cohesive.
Q: If you could work/collaborate with anyone in the fashion industry, who would it be and why?
A: Christie Brown!!! I want Christie Brown; I love you and I know I haven’t seen you in forever!!! Hmmm, who would I like to collaborate with, I love what Orange Culture is doing. I used to be his mentor actually. I am just so proud of what he is. He is so genuine which is rare in this industry.
I like Orange culture because he takes the risks that I used to take. I stopped taking them because I had to think more of my investors. He reminds me of my first two collections and back then I didn’t care about anything. I was in New York, I was new, it all came from my heart. Now the first question is, is this financially viable? Will this sell?
I like Christie brown because her label is what I would wear if I were not a designer. Her S/S’18 is her best collection so far.
Q: Finally, what would your advice be toward the upcoming creatives trying to make their mark on the fashion scene?
A: It’s the same thing I ask all the time – Is this a hubby or is this a career?
If it’s a hobby, fine. Just use the money from whoever and do what you need to do, produce what you need to produce, just live for the fashion shows and who cares if you can produce it if you get the orders.
But if it is your career, if it is what you need to be doing and it is what you would do for free, then you have to realise that you have to get a partner. If your background is in the creative industry, great, go get someone who has a business oriented background. People fail to do this. It is hard to find a trusting partner and a production team, because you can’t do everything. Start with three or four people, teach them all you know, do not be afraid of teaching them everything because that is not possible. You always want a situation with your team running the factory or studio in case you can’t be there.
The production process should be able to run without you being there. I recall once, I had to go away unexpectedly for 3 weeks, but it ended up being six months. I was so pleased that I had trained my staff, because within those six months we made so much money. I was so proud of them. I brought back one suitcase of gifts just for their hard work.
So, that is important, the show has to go on without you and if you think it can’t you will suffer, your health will suffer. So just get a good team and know your limitations and your strengths. Above all, get a business plan, it is your bible, you don’t have to stick to it but it should be your guide.
Another thing is, do not be afraid to hear NO. I still hear it till today.
I approached some investors last year for a product I was working on. I went to about three, four, five of them and I got no, no, no no, no and it weighed heavy on my heart.
I asked this one person, he’d been there all along but I just never asked, I decided to ask and pitch my idea and before I knew it, it was mine within 24 hours. If I had been scared, and trust me, NO is a very scary word. When you have a vision, a goal and you have to accomplish it, you have to keep on going. Seriously, God is amazing in every way, my faith has gone from a lower point to a higher one.
Lastly, Apply to as many international competitions as possible. I applied to one, and I did not win but based on my participation in that, I got a call a few months later from CNN, because CNN follows them and saw that I was the top 5, read my story, saw me, loved me and did an interview with me. They came here, shadowed me for the whole day and my interview was shown twice a day, throughout the world for a month. That is PR you cannot buy. So, you never know where it might lead, people always see these things and think, I will not win.